We Are What We Binge

by Ben Hughes

It’s curious that in our era of iPhones and Snapchat we live in what is called the new “Golden Age” of television. The word “television” evokes a bygone time of old school black-and-white sitcoms, or perhaps the 90s dominance of Seinfeld and Friends. But what’s driving this new “Golden Age” of TV—due to radical shifts in technology and the TV industry itself—is the sheer volume of content we consume through our browsers, tablets, phones, and Roku’s.

There are more “must-see” TV shows now than ever. Add to that a back catalog of entire series runs of beloved shows from years past, and the Great Binge is on—at least until too many people sign into your uncle’s Netflix account at once.

My concern is that, as the old saying goes, we are what we eat. What we consume shapes who we are.

Of course, I don’t know anyone who, after watching too much Sopranos, woke up one morning entangled in mafia dealings. Nor do I worry that any of my friends who watch Breaking Bad will start cooking meth in a camper. I worry less that binging makes us bad humans, and more that binging robs us of our humanity itself.

What it comes down to is this: God created us to love, that is, to be preoccupied with the good of another, forsaking our own pleasure, entertainment, lifestyle choices, and identity preferences to do so. The self-emptying love of Jesus is the ultimate expression of the Father’s will for his children, and the only true way be human.

If humans are supposedly more evolved now than we’ve ever been, how is it that we keep finding new ways to undermine our own existence as a species? The irony is laughable; the zenith of technological “progress” has sat us squarely on our butts for upwards of 5 hours per day (that’s 9 years in a lifespan), even though 49% of us readily admit that’s too much. Children spend 900 hours in school per year. They spend 1,200 hours watching TV (2017 Nielsen survey).

Meanwhile, reports of anxiety and depression, along with feelings of loneliness and isolation, are all sharply rising among teens and college students. When I listen to students whose lives have been changed by Jesus, I hear Netflix and YouTube—not to mention video games and pornography—mentioned more often in association with the low points of their life than the high ones.

We are literally becoming what we consume: flickering blobs of pixels in the corner of a dark room emitting faint sounds of tragedy and false happiness.

The Bible points us to a refreshingly simple explanation of these trends: Sin. The essence of sin is to be turned in on oneself, preoccupied with one’s own consumption—“the lust of the eyes and the lust of the flesh” to be exact. This is the ancient enemy of true, flourishing humanity, and now, like a parasite, it has found a perfect host in Netflix.

Certainly not all TV watching equals “the lust of the eyes,” and the new “Golden Age” of TV has left us with some real artistic achievements. But this just makes the dehumanizing effects of excessive media consumption all the more subtle. The simple yet radical antidote, of course, begins with pulling the plug. But it doesn’t end there.

Even if we were to swear off binging forever and cast our Roku into the sea, the void that was there all along, that first drove us into arms of Netflix, would remain. It’s a void that God put there, and it’s one that only he himself can fill.

Until we learn from Jesus what life is supposed to be, we will fill our lives with every imaginable escape from the cost of true love, from indulging in the basest bodily pleasures to championing the most worthy social causes. But the deepest purpose inside each one of us is fulfilled only when we lay down our life—for specific individuals in tangible ways—as he did for us.

Jesus said that his food was to do the will of the Father. Indeed, we are what we eat.

The Gospel of John in the New Testament is a great place to begin in learning what Jesus was all about. In reading about him, you will discover who we are meant to be as givers and lovers, rather than consumers and bingers. Speaking of which, you might even try to read through the whole thing in one weekend.

Ben Hughes serves as a pastor for the local Christian Fellowship churches. Reach him at benhughes@fastmail.com.